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How to Leave Your Mark on the National Parks

Because who wants to acknowledge oblivion?

By: Katie Johnson + Save to a List

If you clicked on this honestly thinking you'd be told how to leave a mark when you visit these beautiful places, you're exactly who needs to be reading this.

Recently I was on a backcountry excursion in Rocky Mountain National Park. Out of all the Parks I’ve been to, this one might have been the most occupied with trees chiseled with carvings all over the sides of the trails. I witnessed several people get out pocket knives or keys, and go to town with their letters and doodles.

Vandalism isn’t just graffiti on an old building. If you choose to carve your initials into a tree, you are vandalizing that tree. If you choose to paint or draw on rocks, you are defacing thousands of years of growth and change.

I tend to believe people are generally good at heart, which is why I feel it’s a simple misunderstanding between nature and humans on this front. But when you decide to carve a tree, here’s exactly what happens:

  1. When you carve, you open a gateway for more bacteria and pests to enter the tree, inhibiting it’s naturally protective exterior. It is the exact same with humans. If your skins gets scratched, it could lead to an infection. With enough open wounds, any organism is going to suffer.
  2. If the carve is deep enough or the tree is still very young, you could directly inhibit the phloem layer. This is how the tree carries its food. Block the tree’s food source, it will die.
  3. You ruin the natural, beautiful wonder of these National Park trails. Now instead of marveling at the scenery, people are reading your letters up and down every tree out there.
  4. It is specifically against National Park policy to do this. Any NPS website has this very clearly written: "Damaging the park's natural and cultural resources is prohibited. Activities that damage resources include walking on vegetation, the taking of natural or cultural objects, and graffiti and other vandalism."

Your visit is brief but the damage is not. National Parks all over the country have to deal with stuff like this, and in instances where a paint job or something else could be covered up by Park personnel, that money has to come from someplace else to do so.

If you really want to leave your mark, choose to leave no trace. Take pictures! Don’t take away an organism’s defenses.

You leave more of a mark on a garden leaving the beautiful flowers there, than picking them to take home. Leave nature how it is – that’s the ultimate gift you could give it.  

Cover photo: Kyle Frost

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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